Congress Finance

Fight Continues on Transit Element of Stimulus

Stimulus Fight Provokes Question: Bipartisan or Not?

The economic stimulus package which is being proposed in the House and Senate by the Obama administration has been subject to a number of criticisms on this blog, notably because of its limited support for transit investments and its inclusion of large tax cuts. President Obama told a few Republicans at a White House meeting a few days ago “I won,” in reference to the election, and he’s right: the stimulus bill should reflect his priorities in governing rather than those of the losing Republicans. And yet over a third of the $825 billion package will go to tax cuts, which former President candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) argues isn’t enough. Several Republicans are threatening to vote against the bill unless the Bush tax cuts – remember, those for the rich – are made permanent.

There’s increasing evidence that the minimal investment in transit in the stimulus bill – down from a proposed $17 billion in Representation James Oberstar’s (D-MN) Rebuild America to a measly $10 billion today – came directly from the top, as in from Lawrence Summers, one of Mr. Obama’s top economic advisers. Mr. Summers seems more like a Republican than a Democrat here, pushing for more tax cuts and fewer infrastructure projects. This is a problem, considering the enormous backlog of needed maintenance on rails, roads, and bridges (to alter the familiar turn of phrase) and the federal government’s huge black hole of a budget.

The Overhead Wire has a good post up on this issue, arguing for an “office of infrastructure reconciliation,” a fanciful idea. And California High-Speed Rail Blog describes further opposition from Representative Peter DeFazio, who has been consistent in arguing that the transit component of the bill is simply too small.

But to go a bit further, President Obama has been insistent that he wants to run the White House in a bipartisan way by “listening” to people from both sides of the aisle, and presumably “accepting” Republican ideas when “they’re good.” While that sounds like a noble idea, in fact it runs against the democratic process, which is supposed to let voters decide the country’s direction. Voters soundly rejected Republican ideology in both 2006 and 2008, and they deserve more consideration than do upset Republican senators, who have just enough members – 41 – to filibuster Democratic legislation in the Senate. Voters want a big stimulus bill that provides jobs; Republican tax cuts don’t do that, as we have seen, but infrastructure investment does. So the bill should focus on that!

Republican opposition to the bill sounds deceptive, anyway. Can we seriously expect all 41 opposition senators to vote against a bill which will provide desperately needed aid to the American people? No. And even if they did, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which GOP senators filibuster it and prevent it from moving through, because that would simply paint the Republicans as a get-in-the-way party, rather than a party that’s willing to invest in the American people. The GOP probably wants to avoid such an impression after two stunning defeats and another likely to come in 2010.

But perhaps the more significant point is that Democrats don’t really need Republican help with large majorities in both houses, so what’s with all the bipartisanship? Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) put it well in the Washington Post:

I would love for it to be bipartisan, but I’ll remind you that in 1993, President Clinton passed a package without a single Republican vote. It passed in the House by two votes, in the Senate by one vote, but a lot of people say it had the biggest and best growth in the economy that we have ever had and that was done without a single Republican vote…. Because it’s bipartisan doesn’t mean it will be successful. That’s all I’m saying.

3 replies on “Fight Continues on Transit Element of Stimulus”

Hard to imagine a lower transit priority than high speed rail between NYC, Albany and Buffalo. This is completely wrongheaded. It makes no sense to spend scarce transit dollars serving a handful of intercity rail riders when existing transit service serving millions in the NYC area is facing huge fare hikes and service cuts due to shoving capital costs onto fares via fare backed bonds. The MTA’s $30B capital plan is completely unfunded and billions in needed capital funds are needed to keep our existing system in a state of good repair. No doubt Buffalo’s bus riders could use some help as well. Enough with this transpo-topia crap. Our bus and subway riders need help.

While I’m in complete agreement with you on the importance of funding the MTA’s capital plan and providing relief to subway and bus riders, I think that the high-speed rail plan for New York state actually makes a lot of sense. In terms of high-speed rail corridors in the U.S., it would be one of the most productive, with five big metros directly connected by rail (New York, Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo) in a 500-mile route. This route would have strong ridership and make sense especially when considered as part of a plan to connect to Montreal and Toronto. We can, of course, consider paying for both the NY high-speed plan and MTA subways and buses.

All of us who care about this subject need to use the administration’s website for supporters and let President Obama know now that there are voters who want to see more attention to public transit. I’m writing my letter as soon as I hit “submit”.

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